I’m not generally one for scare tactics, but I have a PSA to share today: Diet Culture is lowering your self-worth, wrecking your body image, and generally stealing your joy.
And yet, most people don’t even know what it is. In fact, I had to do some of my best Googling and some soul searching to come up with a definition at all.
But just because you can’t name it, doesn’t mean it isn’t there. Diet Culture is everywhere, you just have to open your eyes and see it.
It’s like this: say you’re thinking about buying a new car. Maybe you saw an ad for a bright red Mercedes and thought about how unique it looked. You wonder why there aren’t any in your town. But the next day on your drive home, you spot two on the highway and realize there’s even one parked in the driveway three houses down.
Welp. That’s Diet Culture. Once you start thinking about it and can name a few examples of your own, you suddenly notice that it’s everywhere. And not just three houses down, but right in your own home.
What is Diet Culture?
Let’s get right down to the business of defining Diet Culture. I’ll start with a short definition from socialjusticelague.net:
Diet culture is a system of thought in which food is an issue of public morality, where eating whatever you want is a grave sin and abstaining from “bad” food – which could be fatty food, sweet food, or carby food, depending on the month – is seen as virtuous.
It’s even easier to understand with some examples, which Ashlie Swicker has done here:
Diet culture is gushing “Oh, I’m going to be bad!” before biting into piece of cake or a donut or a Hershey’s kiss. Diet culture is feeling virtuous when you order a salad. Diet culture is your Facebook feed full of people selling you shakes and workouts and wraps to help you drop the pounds. Diet culture is the pervasive chatter about the morality, quality, and quantity of any food eaten in any order during the lunch hour in any building that employs women. Diet culture is the cashier at Dunkin Donuts proclaiming “good girl!” when I order a bagel with no cream cheese (for my husband). […] Diet culture is so pervasive that you might be shrugging right now, thinking none of these examples are really that bad.
She’s right. That actually all seems pretty normal, which reminds me just how present Diet Culture is in our lives.
We see it in the media, with big budget weight-loss ads that assume we want to lose weight (of course we do, right?). But also in overplayed “Emotional Woman Eating Chocolate” jokes on sitcoms.
We see it in celebrities who remind us that the most important thing about motherhood is the ability to lose the baby weight. And we see the darker side in the cultural schadenfreude of a former teen star packing on pounds.
We see it in our circle of friends, the moment one says she needs to lose weight and the rest of us chime in with “ugh, look at me; if only I could stick to a diet.” We reinforce it 4 weeks later when we point out how truly incredible it is that she lost the weight, congratulating her as if she’s received big a promotion.
We see it in hushed exchanges between coworkers about Susan in Marketing who’s really let herself go, and we’re just worried about her health, really.
But mostly we see it in ourselves. In the mirror, when we try to breathe in to shrink our bodies. In dressing rooms when we mutter “loser” under our breath because a pair of jeans doesn’t fit. Or when we throw out all of our favorite foods because we know that it’s just better to keep them out of the house, what with our lack of self-control.
And with all of the above in mind, I believe that Diet Culture consists of these three main components:
- The socially accepted belief that a person’s worth is related to their weight, size, health, or appearance
- The commercialization of food morality and the shame- and fear-based marketing of diets, Wellness, supplements, and more as “solutions”
- The cultural messaging that dictates that a woman should constantly strive to make her body “better”
These ingrained beliefs erode our self-worth and body image, causing us to remain vulnerable to Diet Culture.
Diet Culture & Self-Contempt
Diet Culture goes out of its way to link physical appearance and size with self-worth.
From a business perspective, it makes sense.
Selling fat loss pills (or juice cleanses or gluten-free pasta) to consumers who want to look better works pretty well. But selling the same products to buyers who hope that losing weight will make them worthy of love, kindness, and happiness is a sure thing.
Of course, because Diet Culture seems so normal, when things go wrong with our diets or health, we often feel a great deal of shame.
In her book I Though it was Just Me (But it Isn’t), Dr. Brené Brown explains that “one reason shame is so powerful is its ability to make us feel alone. Like we are the only one or somehow we’re different from everyone else.”
So when it seems like everyone around you is doing “better” and trying “harder” to control their bodies and health, you end up feeling deeply flawed. Like you must be lazy, out of control, or simply not good enough.
Diet Culture thrives in this place of self-contempt. The place in which fear and self-loathing inspire a temporary change (and a subsequent buying decision).
By placing so much value on people’s body size and shape, Diet Culture leaves us chasing an ever-changing physical ideal. And when we can’t keep up, we’re conveniently the ones to blame (if only we’d been stronger).
Moving Towards Self-Compassion
If Diet Culture thrives on self-contempt, perhaps the best way to fight back is with self-compassion.
Dr. Kristin Neff is an expert on self-compassion, so I’d like to share her definition here:
Instead of mercilessly judging and criticizing yourself for various inadequacies or shortcomings, self-compassion means you are kind and understanding when confronted with personal failings – after all, who ever said you were supposed to be perfect?Instead of just ignoring your pain with a “stiff upper lip” mentality, you stop to tell yourself “this is really difficult right now,” how can I comfort and care for myself in this moment?
Imagine living your life and accepting your body from this place of self-compassion instead of self-contempt.
Take one daily food or body image battle and reimagine it from this context. For example:What if pizza for dinner didn’t mean you had to skip breakfast and berate yourself the next day? What if pizza for dinner was just pizza for dinner, and you had full permission to comfort and care for yourself the next day?
If doing this exercise makes you feel uncomfortable, weak, or lazy, it’s no surprise. That’s Diet Culture reminding you to feel inadequate.
For some, self-compassion (and body acceptance, a topic for another day) seems like an excuse. And for that reason, I think it’s important to dig deeper into the meaning of self-compassion.
To do so, I’m going to break down the three points in Dr. Kristin Neff’s article “What Self-Compassion is Not”. I’ll add my own notes as they relate to body image below her main assertions.
- Self-Compassion is not self-pity
Self-Compassion for your body is not pity for your body. It’s easy to think, “Well, Diet Culture has singled me out because I’m X and I can’t do anything about it.” Remember that you are not alone and that many people are struggling with body image.
- Self-Compassion is not self-indulgence
Self-Compassion for your body isn’t a lifetime of binges. That’s self-indulgence, not caring for and comforting your body. Luckily, the further you get from diet mentality, the easier it is to learn what your body actually wants and needs (which sometimes is ice cream, but, yeah, sometimes is broccoli).
- Self-Compassion is not self-esteem
Dr. Neff explains that “self-esteem refers to our sense of self-worth, perceived value, or how much we like ourselves.” And that’s why I believe that you don’t have to love your body to start treating it with self-compassion. Your self-esteem may come and go, but you deserve to be treated with compassion, even if no one is complimenting you and even if especially if you’re having a bad body image day.
By practicing genuine self-compassion, and rejecting judgment and harsh criticism, we can resist sliding into the traps of Diet Culture.
Even just taking small steps towards treating yourself with compassion, not contempt, can improve your body image. And, if nothing else, a heightened awareness of Diet Culture can help you quickly recognize when it’s influencing your thoughts and actions.
If this is your first time thinking about Diet Culture, it can feel like a really heavy burden. Acknowledging its presence may even feel like you’re shirking your own personal responsibility to your health.
After all, treating yourself with self-compassion is counter to everything that Diet Culture represents. But remember, awareness of the influence of Diet Culture doesn’t have to devolve into self-pity.
Dr. Brown offers an important reminder for practicing critical awareness around larger social issues. Her perspective can be helpful if you’re struggling to contextualize Diet Culture or accept self-compassion:
When we strive to understand the context or the big picture, we don’t give up responsibility. We increase it. When we identify a personal struggle that is rooted in larger issues, we should take responsibility for both.
You are not alone and you have the power to create change.
Remember this when Diet Culture seems too big to topple and self-compassion seems too radical to accept.
Because you are already enough. And each act of self-compassion is a welcome reminder of your worth.